Monumental Tasks

The month The Ghent Altarpieceof July finds me busy creating and developing opportunities for Adults to gather together to be formed and informed throughout the rest of this year and into the next.  One of these wonderful opportunities will be a lecture by Professor Danny Praet from the University of Ghent in Belgium.  Professor Praet will be in the States attending a Conference but has carved out time to be at Saint John’s to speak on one of his areas of interest and expertise—the famed Ghent Altarpiece.

The Cathedral in Ghent abounds with stunning religious art, but the one artwork which stands out among the rest is The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck.  It has been known by various names since its creation.  In Flemish, the altarpiece is known as Het Lam Gods, “The Lamb of God.” It has also been referred to as The Mystic Lamb, or simply, The Lamb.

Those who stand before the altarpiece cannot but feel overwhelmed by its monumentality. The Altarpiece comprises twenty individual painted panels linked in a massive hinged framework.  It is opened for religious holidays but remains closed for most of the year, at which point only eight of the twenty panels, which were painted on both recto and verso (front and back sides), are visible. The subject matter of the verso panels, visible when the altarpiece is closed, is the Annunciation: The Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear the Son of God.  Portraits of the donors who paid for the altarpiece, and their patron saints, also grace the back.  When open, the altarpiece’s center displays an idealized field full of figures: saints, martyrs, clergy, hermits, righteous judges, knights of Christ and an angelic choir, all making a slow pilgrimage to pay homage to the central figure—a Lamb on a sacrificial altar, standing proudly, while it bleeds into a golden chalice.  This scene is referred to as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.”  The precise iconographic meaning of “The Adoration of the Mystic LambThe Mystic Lamb” panel, and the meaning of the dozens of obscure symbols within it, have been the subject of centuries of scholarly debate.  Above the vast field of “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, in the upper panels, God the Father sits enthroned, with Mary and John the Baptist on either side.  The level of minute detail in so enormous an artwork is unprecedented.  Until the altarpiece was painted, only portrait miniatures and illuminated manuscripts contained such detail. Nothing like this intricacy had ever been seen before on such a grand scale, by artists or admirers. The great art historian, Erwin Panofsky, famously wrote that van Eyck’s eye functioned  “as a microscope and a telescope at the same time.”

The Ghent Altarpiece, the young van Eyck’s first major public work, was also the first large-scale oil painting to gain international renown. Though he did not invent oil painting, van Eyck was the first artist to exploit its true capabilities. The artistry, realistic detail, and new use of this medium made the artwork a point of pilgrimage for artists and intellectuals from the moment the paint dried and for centuries to follow.

The Altarpiece is a work of art that legions of collectors, dukes, generals, kings, emperors, and entire armies desired, to such an extent that they killed, stole, and altered the strategic course of war to possess it.  In the Second World War, American officers of the Monuments and Fine Arts Division (“Monuments Men”), a group of art historians, architects, and archaeologists, were charged with recovering and protecting art and monuments in war zones. They were given a list of major artworks that had disappeared since the start of the war. The list included masterpieces from museums such as the Louvre and the Uffizi; Davids from France, Botticellis from Italy, and Vermeers from the Netherlands. Their value was incalculable, their destruction irrevocable.  At the head of that list was The Ghent Altarpiece. Allies knew of Hitler’s dream to create a super-museum and of the scores of secret Nazi art depots in castles, monasteries and mines throughout Nazi-occupied territory.The biggest cache of all was in an abandoned salt mine in the Austrian Alps, in a place called Alt Aussee.  It had been converted into a high-tech underground storehouse for all of the looted art destined for the super-museum in Linz. The stolen collection numbered over 12,000 works, including masterpieces by Michaelangelo, Raphael, Vermeer, Durer, Rembrandt, and Leonardo. But the work the Nazis prized above all was van Eyck’s,Ghent Altarpiece.

Jan van Eyck painted The Mystic Lamb between 1426 and 1432, a tumultuous time in European history. Among the notable events of this period were England’s King Henry V’s marriage to Catherine of France; two years later, Henry died.  Joan of Arc was executed in the midst of the raging Hundred Years’ War; Brunelleschi began to build the dome of the Cathedral in Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore.

In considering how to situate The Ghent Altarpiece in the history of art, it is said alternatively that it is the last artwork of the Middle Ages or the first painting of the Renaissance period.  It is considered as the last artwork of the Middle Ages because the form of the frame, the painted architecture, and the figures are Gothic in style. The extensive gilding, an effect added later by a gilder after the artist had completed his work, is also a Gothic characteristic. And yet, one can easily argue that the masterpiece represents the first paining of the Renaissance period for though there is gilding, the work also abounds with naturalistic landscapes and backgrounds, characteristic of post medieval painting. Its realism, unprecedented in the Middle Ages, can also be said to have been inspired by a Humanist ideology. But rather than relegating The Ghent Altarpiece to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, the painting can be viewed more accurately as the fulcrum between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in art as well as thought.

What is the painting of?  This seemingly simple question has a complex answer. Most religious paintings of the fifteenth century were inspired by, or precisely illustrated, a particular passage in the Bible. The Ghent Altarpiece refers to many biblical and mystical texts, but is a synthesis rather than a precise illustration of any one of them. One must excavate the various layers of theological references and iconography before linking together the individual pieces into a constellation.

In the time before the printing press, one of the great pleasures of an educated life was to contemplate drawings, paintings and portraits over the span of hours, months or even years. They were sources of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, something to be debated with friends. These pieces of art would often include varying levels of complexity and in depictions of biblical scenes, could still be easily identifiable by the simple admirer but, also containing erudite images, appealed to the educated and sophisticated viewer by conveying a hybrid of various theological texts, references to mythology or pagan ideas, and time-and-place specific occurrences. These ideas might be obvious to the contemporary viewer but would be foreign to later audiences.

To be sure, the images in The Ghent Altarpiece are varied, theoretically and theologically diverse. The painting both enchants the eye and provokes the mind. The pleasure in deciphering the masterpiece will be ours as we are led into the work by Professor Praet. He proposes a new interpretation of its structure and philosophical-theological meaning by connecting the panels of the lower register with the four cardinal virtues of Antiquity (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude) and the three theological virtues of Medieval Christianity (faith, hope and charity); no monumental task for a monumental scholar!

For more on the story of the most desired and victimized art object of all time see, “Stealing The Mystic Lamb”, by Noah Charney. For information on Professor Praet’s lecture at Saint John Vianney Catholic Church go to


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